The freedom to think differently

Almost a month has now passed since the terrifying bloodbath which took place in the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine.

The media remain rife with discussion over the meaning and consequences of this vile attempt of the sword to break the pen. I must admit that while the nature and brutality of the murders shocked me, there was nothing I found surprising about the fact that it occurred in the first place. After all, the threat of violent Islamist terror against free expression has been present in Europe at least since the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the burnings, kidnappings, bombings, and murders which were subsequently committed by thousands of Muslims across the globe.

In between the Rushdie affair and the Charlie Hebdo attacks, there were dozens of similar attempts to silence free speech. Among the most gruesome ‘incidents’ on the long list of barbarous punishments for victimless crimes are the 2004 shooting and stabbing to death of a Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh for making a film depicting the plight of Muslim women and the riots over cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. That some adherents of Islam did not consider their religion a peaceful one, or at the very least had a very different idea of what peace was, has been known for some time now. What therefore surprised me most this January was no the attack itself but the sheer size of the popular response that was unleashed by it.

While at first I rejoiced at seeing so many people come to the rescue of the right to free expression, this naive and desperate humanism soon gave way to bitter scepticism. I was sobered up by the realisation that no bonanza of free expression would take place anytime soon. The nasty Pegida rallies and other far-right attempts to throw Europe back into its traditional cycle of violence notwithstanding, even the ‘Je suis Charlie’ solidarity movement, seemingly innocuous and undoubtedly fuelled by noble intentions, tempered the idealism I must have contracted in some university lecture hall. The reason for my misgivings with the public reaction to what happened in Paris is that the ‘Je suis Charlie’ mantra does nothing in defence of free speech.

There is no need to overly moralise about the infantility of the slogan’s proliferation on the very same media which censor any drawings of Prophet Mohammad, or the rightful dismay of the remaining Charlie Hebdo staff at becoming a political symbol, or the protesters’ placid disinterest in expressing similar levels of solidarity with the Ukrainians (the Western public response to ‘Je suis Volnovakha’ was shamefully small). What really matters is the way ‘Je suis Charlie’ was abused by leaders of all creeds to ramp up cheap political points.

The march of solidarity with the newspaper, which assembled in France’s capital several days after the attack, was attended by the Jordanian King who imprisoned fifteen journalists last year and the Prime Minister of Turkey, a country with an atrocious record of repressing journalism. Egypt’s Foreign Minister was also present, whose government continues to retain the Al-Jazeera journalists who were arrested on laughable charges almost two years ago. Then there was Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia where journalists consider themselves lucky if they survive a disagreement with the government. The Prime Ministers of Bulgaria and Romania were also in attendance even though their respective countries are more than harsh on journalistic freedom, as was the Foreign Minister of Algeria where journalists have been held without trial for fifteen months now. The Palestinian President Abbas also made an appearance, even though he had several journalists arrested last year because they insulted him. Even the Saudis sent a delegate, while at the same time sentencing the journalist and civil rights activist Raif Badawi to weekly whippings for the crime of insulting the Prophet. All of the above travellers with unfreedom could not over-emphasise just how Charlie they were on that day. The whole spectacle was then turned into a farce by Israel’s President Netanyahu, who took part in the rally without being invited.

This march alone was enough to make a cat laugh, but it was the religious leaders who put the cherry on top of the cake when they condemned the killers and the killed in the same breath. Bill Donohue, the leader of the Catholic League in the United States (the biggest Catholic organisation in the country) said the cartoonists had it coming by poking jokes in the wrong direction. Similar stomach-turning statements were made by Tomáš Halík, a prominent Catholic in the Czech Republic. Even the Pope commented on the cold-blooded murders, with all the infallibility that he claims for himself, that ‘you can’t insult the faith of others’. And these are just the gutless Catholics. The opinions of many Imams on Charlie Hebdo were so radical that I hope the intelligence services are aware of their authors’ every movement.

Not that this brain rot is in any way new. The Danish cartoons were also condemned by the Pope, never mind the countless Imams who used it for their political gains. Back in the late 1980s, while Islamist hatred was being poured onto an author who dared to write a book of fiction which draws from the stories of Mohammed, the Archbishop of Canterbury lobbied the British government to extend its blasphemy laws, and Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits called against the Satanic Verses’ publishing. Only very few heads of state came to Rushie’s aid; one of these was the then President of Czechoslovakia Václav Havel.

Of course, this doesn’t make all religious people guilty. Most Christians and Muslims are perfectly nice people, ready to stand shoulder to shoulder in defence of free speech. What the discourse surrounding ‘Je suis Charlie’ reveals is which contemporary public figures would stab the right of free expression in the back when it came under fire. Of course, the wannabe censors would rob us as well as themselves of a great deal of liberty if they succeeded in this endeavour. No matter how outlandish or misinformed or outright hateful, the expression of every opinion must be allowed in the public space so that we may verify what we already think and know or come to shake our convictions in light of a better argument. It is the right to listen as much as it is the right to speak, in other words. Notice also that those who wish to limit such a beautiful arrangement invariably wish to take it upon themselves to carry the great burden of telling us what we can and cannot see or hear. It is our civic duty to refuse such power-hungry attempts to silence what Rosa Luxemburg called the freedom to dissent, even more so now after what happened in France. We must come together as supporters of free expression and give these cringing sophists, as well as their sinister accomplices in positions of political power, a good talking to. Drawing satirical cartoons is also, as always, encouraged.

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Jan Stehlík is a Junior Analyst at the European Values Think-Tank. Any views or opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the European Values Think-Tank.